What’s description for? I’ve been working with an author and one of her issues was her use of description.
Is the purpose of description to show the reader what something looks like? The setting, for instance?
Yes, partly. But there’s a lot more it can do.
My author wrote detailed paragraphs about a cafe the characters visited, the food they ordered. When the characters went for a bike ride in the country, there were long paragraphs about the scenery. We were definitely ‘there’ – a guidebook couldn’t have done it better. But the descriptions were flat. Something was missing.
The reader of a novel doesn’t want a guidebook. In a novel, description can perform another important function, besides showing us around. A novel is an experience, usually through a character’s consciousness, and description is one of the ways to involve us in their internal world.
Good description isn’t simply a list of stuff. It’s things the viewpoint character is noticing because they are important in the moment, things that echo a character’s mood or anxieties or the problems they’re grappling with.
Here’s an important question to ask when writing description. What do your viewpoint characters notice and why?
Sitting in my study, right now, I notice the bookshelves need dusting. That’s annoying, but every time I consider dusting, I think of the manuscript I should be writing, or research I should do. I’m telling you there’s dust (oh boy, is there dust), and I’m also telling you why I tolerate it (it’s only dust and I have bigger priorities).
Description is also a fantastic tool for the writer to suggest themes. If my theme is the passing of time, I’ll tell you about the dead Kindle I use as a coaster for my tea mug, which still has the screen saver from the day in 2013 when Husband Dave accidentally shut the car boot on it. You can subtly direct the reader to notice ideas, suggested by the character’s thoughts in the moment (entropy, advancing technology). The dead Kindle also shows something about my personality – I hate throwing things away. And I’m creative – I use things for their unintended purpose.
Purpose. Let’s linger on that word. In good writing, every idea has a purpose. The writer knows how they’re handling the reader’s senses and emotions. It’s an experience that is precisely directed, like a stage illusion. The writer knows what they want you to look at, to think about, to feel. They also know what’s irrelevant and distracting.
Emotion gets our attention – and it’s memorable. We’re hard wired for it – as are most social animals. Ask anyone who trains dogs or horses.
This means you can use emotion to teach the reader about the character and whatever situation they’re in. You can also use a character’s emotional reactions to help the reader remember a detail that will be important later. If a man with a missing finger will be a big aha, the reader needs to notice him, but not too much. So draw our attention to the missing digit, and tie it to a feeling that seems relevant and significant at the time. Then reveal him again later, with writerly sleight of hand.
Description of characters’ physicality is often underused. Again, the missing piece is often the viewpoint character’s reaction or feeling. If you tell us about a character’s hairstyle or build, could you also use it to let us know what it’s like to be in the room with them?
‘He had close-cropped hair that looked military. He was tall. Elliot could imagine him shepherding a normal-sized person easily through a crowd, walking behind them like a protective exoskeleton, parting the masses with his arms. A belly swelled over his waistband. This did not make him look soft. Quite the opposite.’ (From Ever Rest)
While we’re talking about description, here’s an element you mustn’t miss out. At the start of a scene, the reader needs several Ws –
Who is there.
What they are doing.
When the scene is taking place – night, day, a rough idea of the time of year.
Where they are.
It’s surprising how many writers leave this out. The reader is actually blindfolded when they enter a scene, with only your voice to guide them. So you need to load this information fast – in the opening paragraphs, unless there’s a deliberate reason to keep it a mystery. (Usually there isn’t.)
I’ve read so many manuscripts where I was bumbling around confused because people were appearing suddenly and talking, and I didn’t know they were there. Or I’m unsure what the surroundings are. Someone puts a cup of coffee on the table, but is the table in a café, an office, on a mountainside or in somebody’s home? And where are they, geographically? Often writers will supply the place-names, hoping they will do all the descriptive work, but, my dear, there are several Birminghams and lots of Olympic parks. Readers like to know which country they’re in.
Also, they want to know what the place means to the character. Is it home? Is it a place the character might move to? Is it a place they never wanted to see again? Each feels different. Emotion gives vital context.
So if you want to pep up your descriptions, look for the details you can pin an emotion onto.
Go for the feels.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
#1 by Susan Sloate on March 12, 2023 - 6:10 pm
To this day, my all-time favorite description of place is the morning room at Manderley in REBECCA, where the new Mrs. DeWinter (whose first name and maiden name we are never told) sits for the first time after her honeymoon. She looks at the beautiful furniture in the room, and her thoughts circle on the woman (Rebecca, her predecessor) who chose the best pieces for the room, because she knew they were the best, and kept records of guests and what she served them, and managed her household efficiently. She already knows she cannot do the same, and her emotions over this are palpable as we learn about the morning room. It’s a perfect example of description ‘with feels’ and sets up the rest of the novel, just in that one scene. I’ve read it hundreds of times and never been bored with it yet.
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 12, 2023 - 6:33 pm
That is a lovely example, Susan. It tingles with Mrs De Winter’s awareness of her inadequacy. You’ve made me want to read Rebecca all over again, which would be my umpteenth time. I don’t think there’s a single boring line in the book.
#3 by Susan Sloate on March 12, 2023 - 6:56 pm
Agreed, Roz! An all-time fave of mine too. (The movies don’t do it justice, though; so much is interior monologue that’s impossible to reproduce visually, for the screen.) BTW, I enjoyed this post so much I’ve just invested in two of your books about writing, as clearly you understand some of the finer points I have yet to master; thanks again!
#4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 12, 2023 - 8:15 pm
That’s lovely of you – thank you!
And yes, I agree about the movies of Rebecca. Nothing beats du Maurier’s prose.
#5 by V.M.Sang on March 13, 2023 - 10:20 am
Great advice. I need to now go back over my WIP and check on all these things.
#6 by raynayday on March 14, 2023 - 7:42 pm
An excellent piece. And so, I apologise in advance for my one small criticism as I believe that you have things right. It depends on what kind of a reader you are.
I take you back to Herman Hesse taking three chapters to describe a cloud in “Peter Camenzind”, Jean Paul Sartre describing “rust” in “Iron in the soul” or better still Peter Hoeg’s “Miss Smilla” where chapter upon chapter is dedicated to the consistency of snow. It very much depends upon what the reader desires to read. I agree with you, I believe you to be right, but some may not, after all two of the three I mentioned have won a Nobel Prize for literature and the third has been nominated for one, three years running.
#7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 14, 2023 - 10:11 pm
What an interesting point. I think these kinds of description fit within my broad point – they are not flat, they advance the poetic qualities of the work. I’m guessing here – I read Smilla many years ago and can’t remember enough about those descriptions of snow; I haven’t read the Sartre or the Hesse. But I think I grasp the broad point you’re making. They do not seem purposeless or without an interesting inner drive. We read them with interest becasue we can feel a revelation taking place, of meaning, of awareness. Deep notes from the story’s setting or physical geography that perform a little magic with the rest of the work. Thanks for bringing this up.
#8 by OIKOS™- Art, Books & more on March 14, 2023 - 8:19 pm
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